MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 99 minutes
Appropriate for ages 13+. There’s a bare minimum of profanity but some frank discussion of sex acts that may make some groan or squirm. The film also has a somewhat disappointing habit of trivializing mental illness.
After a decade and a half off, Whit Stillman has returned with another tale of young theorizers in love. His brand of wordy quirk isn’t for everyone, but “Damsels in Distress” is riddled with moments of charm that may please a particular brand of burgeoning teen smarty-pants in the family.
By Jared Peterson
On her first day as a transfer student at the Seven-Sisters-style Seven Oaks College, Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is approached by a trio of pretty, immaculately groomed girls. Led by Violet (Greta Gerwig), a generous know-it-all, they are the self-appointed campus suicide counselors. They’ve sized Lily up and determined (incorrectly) that she must be depressed, and they want to help, using their own brand of therapy that incorporates the life-affirming power of donuts, tap dancing, and the smell of fresh soap.
Kids these days.
These Mean-Well Girls’ love lives are also a kind of philanthropic mission. They consider low expectations to be a high art, and have taken it upon themselves to reach out to the dimmest of the school’s trust fund frat boys in an effort to better them. Lily befriends the girls, but doesn’t share in their charitable pursuits. Instead, she has an affair with a French intellectual (Hugo Becker), who charms and manipulates her with crackpot philosophies, and crushes on a young businessman (Adam Brody) who is not what he pretends to be. Meanwhile, when one of the frat dolts cheats on her, Violet falls into the same kind of depression she’s been trying to cure.
Whit Stillman’s work—“Metropolitan”, “Barcelona”, “The Last Days of Disco”, and now “Damsels”—revolves around naively intelligent characters in rarefied, insular environments: New York City’s debutante circles, expatriate Americans, social climbers clinging to a fading trend, a small clique at a small, liberal arts college. They’re naively intelligent and awkwardly honest, and always struggling to get their heads around something. They talk a lot. At its most grating and indulgent, Stillman’s dialogue can sound like a series of live-action Wikipedia entries, without all the pesky attribution. He values the pronouncement of ideas over the conveying of emotion. But the ideas are sometimes ridiculously clever, and more often cleverly ridiculous. In at least one way, “Damsels” joins the company of “His Girl Friday” (and its most breathless imitator, the Coen Brothers “The Hudsucker Proxy”), “Annie Hall”, “Juno”, or anything by David Mamet—films that wear as a badge of honor the audience’s cries of “Who talks like that?” In a phrase her character would probably love, Greta Gerwig is the bee’s knees, radiantly mousy and bewitchingly vulnerable. She and Adam Brody are both delightful here, and they do a great job carrying on the tone of breezy self-seriousness from Stillman’s earlier films.
I’ll be honest: As a fan of Stillman’s previous work (especially “Barcelona”), I didn’t love “Damsels in Distress” like I thought I would. It’s a safe bet that most audiences will quickly tire of the characters lengthy musings about what have come to be called “white-person problems”. All I know is that there is small subset of young people out there for who the film’s unique voice will register and resound. If you couldn’t tell from my writing, I was one of those kids, and I can’t help but want to encourage them to embrace their inner psychobabbler. If that ends up making a few of your family dinners run long, I apologize.